School libraries and eLearning: Answering the call for access and equity

This week Michelle Campbell and I are off to the Manitoba School Library Association Conference to present this paper to other learning leaders in Canada at Treasure Mountain Canada 2017, the school library think tank for Canada.  We would love your feedback on our work and to hear from you about your projects in school libraries, eLearning and partnerships with public libraries.

Learning beyond school walls

School is no longer just a 9:00am to 3:30pm activity. With the increased use of technology and the growth of online learning, our children have an opportunity to learn anytime and anywhere. Upper Grand District School Board (UGDSB) has spent a great deal of time and money purchasing and curating excellent digital resources for our students to access 24/7 from school and from home or travelling between both. With the addition of UG2GO (our Virtual Learning Commons) and UGCloud (our Google Apps for Education environment) more and more homework and learning activities are being provided digitally. This works well for students who have ready access to technology in their home but provides a significant disadvantage to those students who have limited or no access to internet or devices in their homes. As well research studies have shown that children with internet access at home do better in school.

“There is agreement among teens and their parents about the role that the internet plays in teens’ education.  Eighty-six percent of teens, and 88% of online teens, believe that the internet helps teenagers to do better in school.  Eighty percent of parents and 83% of parents of online teens agreed with that proposition.” (Pew Research Center, 2005).

At Upper Grand we also offer a number of eLearning courses for our adolescent and adult students, that rely heavily on access to our excellent digital resources e.g. video streaming content. Staying connected is essential for student success in eLearning courses.

School libraries as safe spaces for eLearning

In general, the success of eLearning is due in large part to the flexibility it offers to its students to learn on their own time and in the setting of the student’s choice. The opportunity for learning in the school library with its reliable hours, equipment and staff support, pulls eLearning students into the space as regular patrons.  For marginalized students and eLearning students, who are working within the school system but in alternate modes of learning, both school and public libraries are safe spaces.  Safety comes from the security, the reliablility, the privacy, the equity of access and the hospitality of libraries.  Especially in small or rural communities, as in the UGDSB,  the “benefits of [these] shared spaces are numerous, and include economic, networking and collaboration, and safety reasons. An added advantage is that in a small community shared spaces support privacy and confidentiality” (County of Wellington, 2011, p. 29)  To meet the needs of eLearning students after school library hours, we have added improved access to digital resources through the physical addition of reliable equipment in community libraries.

Embedded school librarianship in online classrooms

Embedded librarianship is part of the eLearning experience at the post-secondary level but has yet to emerge in school libraries in a systemic approach.  For post-secondary students, embedded librarians are available, helpful and consistent in their approach to student queries ranging from technical understanding to research approaches.  My experience as a student with embedded librarians has influenced the work that I do as an embedded teacher-librarian in the eLearning classes I have access to.  

There are two main scenarios where I act as an embedded librarian: 1) through Google Classroom in our Google Apps for Education suite and 2) by creating an active space through our eLearning classrooms in Brightspace D2L.  In the first scenario, I often have the opportunity to meet the students face-to-face at least once but I provide resources, reminders or even assessment of skills online through Google Classroom.  The home teacher simply invites me as a secondary teacher to the environment.  Through our collaboration, I can help the teacher diagnose weaknesses in the students’ readiness for inquiry, respond to student discussions or invite the student to a face-to-face discussion where we can work through difficulties that they are having.

The highest level of achievement I have to date of being an embedded librarian though comes through our local Digital Historian program (http://www.digitalhistorianproject.com/about/).  Our school is home to this travelling 4-credit program for grade 11 and 12 students, in which students research the histories of local veterans to build an e-book of their lives to be housed at our local museum.  I often get to meet these students once before we are separated by distance.  This second scenario of embedded librarianship is managed through a persistent link I created within their digital classroom inside Brightspace D2L which has resources and also my contact information, should they need assistance.   The persistent link allows me to create resources in a public space, in my case a Google site, and link resources specific to their program and direction.  With these students the help I provide is often a series of pathfinders that lead students through increasingly complex historical and genealogical work.  We use many of the government websites, databases, Ancestry software public licenses and military records.  I am also able to link to a bank of instructional videos for research, but also any inquiry topic like MLA formatting.  The distance and isolation that these students feel in taking a risk by becoming an online student is decreased through the support I offer as an embedded librarian.

Imperative support for at-risk eLearning students

Our UGDSB experience has shown that fully online learning is usually first accessed by students in grades 11 or 12 and that the most requested courses tend to be in the university-stream. In the 2016-17, I was part of a group of librarians and eLearning teachers who ran an action research project (sponsored by an Ontario Teachers’ Federation grant) to examine student engagement in online spaces.  We found that some of the reasons that students are compelled to choose online courses are because: a) the course they want is full at their base school; b) the course is needed to upgrade a post-secondary application average or c) the online learning environment suits the lifestyle of these students who have schedules or geographical challenges that make face-to-face learning challenging.  Tragically, more and more students are forced into an online class because the course they want to take is not available at all in a geographically accessible, face-to-face school.  This factor is the primary reason why students are not successful in online learning (Feick, King, Downe and Unger, 2017).  Our action research indicated through a survey of 109 active online learning students that the following factors affected students ability to learn:

  • More trouble staying motivated in online learning versus face-to-face (27%)
  • Difficulty managing time (20%)

The greatest indicator of whether an online student felt supported or not was having opportunity to ask for help. (Feick et al, 2017).  

In my experience as a college preparatory English teacher, students often need my course to graduate.  Many of my students are returning to the secondary school learning environment just to complete my course and graduate.  This readiness and motivation to succeed is one of the reasons that I believe at-risk students can be successful in the online environment.  Many of my students are experiencing social challenges or lifestyles, similar to this report on youth homelessness in our area:

The primary group [at risk of becoming homeless] includes:

  • Large families (with 3+ children), particularly given the scarcity of affordable family housing units in the County
  • Youth, especially 16 to 18 year-olds (There is much confusion re when youth are “kicked-off” the child welfare system, and the rules about youth accessing social assistance).
  • Young and/or single parents
  • Individuals/families experiencing job loss and credit problems (bankruptcy)

Secondary populations who are also vulnerable include:

  • Young adults with limited job prospects who return to their home communities when they have nowhere else to go
  • Those who come from families with a history of poverty and/or transience
  • Long-time locals with inadequate shelter (e.g. poorly heated farm houses)
  • Men living on their own” (County of Wellington, 2011, p. 23).  

Not only are their prospects of graduating secondary school challenging, but so is their access to reliable computers, print and digital resources, technical and academic support and functioning skills in organization and time management.  As their teacher, these challenges between reader/user, and software and hardware are often insurmountable without a third party stepping in to assist the learner.  In our board, that third party is often a guidance counsellor for emotional support and a teacher-librarian for academic support.   

Pedagogy of eLearning with at-risk youth

Students who are both at-risk and ambitiously taking on eLearning classes are more at risk than their peers in face-to-face learning environments.  These students who are often verging on adulthood require a special pedagogy of their own.  In Handbook of Research on K-12 Online and Blended Learning, Repetto and Spitler apply a framework of “5Cs” (as cited in Ferdig and Kennedy, 2014) to online learning with at-risk students.  According to the 5Cs framework students need:

  • to be able to connect current learning in school to the knowledge and skills they will need post-school…
  • to be provided with a safe and supportive climate for learning….
  • to understand and learn how they are in control of their own learning and behaviors….
  • an engaging curriculum grounded in effective instructional strategies and evidence-based practices to support their learning….
  • to be part of a caring community that values them as learners, as well as individuals

(p. 115). The success of eLearning students at this precarious moment also often relies on moving eLearning students from adolescent reliance to adult independence through explicit training of time management, accountability and organizational skills.  Our research and practice demonstrates that school librarians are valuable partners in helping each student achieve this independence.  However the limited access to school library staff and spaces has challenges for eLearning students.

Equity and student success

The decision to bring technology to students in the community was based on an initiative from the Upper Grand Technology Council, an internal board group that brings together representatives from the board’s IT department, board administration, school support and program services. The intent of the technology council is to plan and strategize ways in which technology can support student success. Understanding that many students are at a disadvantage in terms of access to technology, the members of the technology council discussed many possible reasons why a student might not have access to the Internet or technology — no Internet in the home by parent choice, no Internet in the home because of low income, no Internet in the home because you cannot get Internet service in a rural area, Internet in the home but no or very limited access to devices in the home.

“In Canada, 83% of households have access to the internet at home, but a closer look at the numbers shows a stark divide between the top and bottom quartiles of family income – 98% of families in the top quartile have internet access, compared to only 58% of those in the bottom quartile (with average family incomes below $30,000)”(People for Education and Statistics Canada, 2012, p. 4).

One solution that is often proposed is to go to the public library to access technology, but we also hear from our students that the technology at the public library is limited and in high demand. “Given the digital divide, it is unsurprising that poorer Canadians rely more heavily on public access points such as libraries to use the Internet. The biggest user of library Internet access are Canadians aged 16 to 24, where 21.5 per cent used Internet library access in 2012”(Geist, 2013).
After much discussion we decided to approach one of our local public library systems – Wellington County Public Library – with a unique pilot project to see if we could increase access to devices for UGDSB students by having the public library loan out our Chromebooks to our students through their library system. Wellington County Library was chosen for the pilot because their jurisdiction covers most of the rural areas of our board. Wellington County Library was very receptive to the idea and willing to move ahead immediately with this project in 3 of their branch libraries. We worked together to create a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that outlined the roles and responsibilities of each party as they relate to the project. For example we determined that Upper Grand DSB would be responsible for loss or damage to the Chromebooks without any cost to the public libraries.

Bridging the digital divide by partnering with public libraries

“Not all students have the same kinds of access to digital technologies. The “digital divide” refers to the gap between the privileged and underprivileged members of society in terms of their ability to access digital tools and the Internet.” (People for Education, 2014, p. 4). After a successful pilot project with Wellington County Library we moved forward with approaching the rest of the public library systems in our board jurisdiction in an attempt to bridge the digital divide.  In addition to increasing the project at Wellington County Library to include 11 more branches (total of 14 branches) we added Guelph Public Library (7 branches), Shelburne Public Library (1 branch), Grand Valley Public Library (1 branch) and Orangeville Public Library (2 branches). The school board donated 5 Chromebooks for each branch library to circulate to Upper Grand students only. There were a total of 25 branch libraries between the 5 different public library systems that were given Chromebooks as well as given protective cases and Chromebook charging bins.

This project has been and continues to be extremely successful in terms of circulation statistics. The use of the Chromebooks in house and the circulation outside the library has continued to increase over time. During the 2015-2016 school year Guelph Public Library circulated 744 chromebooks and Wellington County Library circulated 1204 chromebooks. During the 2016-2017 school year circulation increased as GPL circulated 964 chromebooks and Wellington County Library circulated 1298 chromebooks. We expect this upward trend to continue for the upcoming school year.

Marketing and promotion was essential to ensure that students and parents were aware of the chromebook project. We used social media (school board and public library), school newsletters, public library newsletters, television and radio advertising, and online and newspaper articles to promote the project over a period of time. Here are a couple of examples of our marketing efforts:
http://www.ugdsb.ca/blog/Chromebooks-available-at-all-Guelph-Library-locations-for-Upper-Grand-students/   

https://www.guelphmercury.com/news-story/5551299-upper-grand-school-board-links-up-with-libraries-to-provide-student-internet-access/

In cooperation with Guelph Public Library we also had an opportunity to present the Chromebooks in our public library project as a poster session at the 2016 OLA Superconference. The goal of the session was to spread the idea to other school boards and public libraries in the province. The title of the poster session was “Five Public Libraries and a School Board” and you can see the poster here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1nFmji_CTcN3dHd6EOP-Qk48ucxJDj99B2o-w5oe1jvo/edit?usp=sharing

Chromebook circulation has been so popular at Guelph Public Library that we were able to allocate an additional 16 chromebooks for circulation through their branch libraries in the 2016-2017 school year. Other positive stories came from Shelburne Public Library who let us know that the addition of the Chromebooks allowed them to start a creative writing program for teens program. At Wellington County Library the addition of the devices prompted them to purchase and circulate “wifi to go” devices for their rural communities. Many of our UGDSB students have taken advantage of this new addition and will borrow both a wifi hotspot and Chromebook for home use. We also heard from a number of parents that this program has alleviated family stress because they only have one computer in the home and two or more children that need to use it at the same time.

Next steps

We will continue to support all of the libraries with replacing lost and damaged Chromebooks and any other support they require. In the next couple of years we anticipate that the Chromebooks will all need to be replaced and we plan to support this by ensuring that necessary budget is allocated. We anticipate that we will continue to provide additional devices to the two larger public library systems as there never seems to be enough.  Overall we feel that this has been a very positive and unique partnership with our local public library systems and the high circulation statistics justify the need. We hope we have helped to bridge the digital divide for our rural students and our low income students by providing equitable access to Chromebooks through public libraries.

School libraries are pivotal to the success of online learning programs, especially in rural communities.  The profile of an online adolescent student in combination with the context surrounding their choice to learn online puts the library at an optimal position to support this learning.  “Constructivist tenets of online learning match those of inquiry and problem-based learning associated with information fluency and library instruction” (Boyer and Kelly, p. 367).  As online students often are transitioning for the first time from face-to-face environments, they realize that they need to develop new strategies for their studies and a new skillset for success.  As with face-to-face learning, school libraries have the flexibility, security and tools to meet the needs of online learners.  The reliable nature of the public library in conjunction with the partnership of school libraries has allowed all youth to access online learning support across our rural community.  

Characterizing reluctant learners in online learning

When I think about the general characteristics of the students who take my online ENG4C class, my learners:

  • Struggle with task completion
  • Struggle with goal-setting
  • Struggle with time management
  • Lead nearly adult lives
  • Are studying independently from their parents

Do you have learners like that?  How would you generally characterize your reluctant learners?  When I recently presented at BOLTT, I surveyed the audience and this is what they added:

Made with Padlet

Feel free to add your own descriptors too.  If we define the audience as anyone who is reading this, then why not get more ideas?  I’d very much like to hear from you either in the Padlet or the comments.

Trying to define my learners by their characteristics always reminds me of the work I did for my M.Ed. capping paper on transliteracy which can basically be summarized in this one image:

User Reader Text Technology

Teaching online is so much more complex than the face-to-face world of teaching because you’re dealing with these 4 areas without the benefit of your face-to-face experience.  The learner is both a user and a reader in every moment of online learning as they navigate the technology and whatever the text (words, images, web formatting, media, etc.) is.  They may be proficient readers but not proficient users.  In my case, these are the students who are usually not strong in either reading or the technology they’re using. Technology is further subdivided into the categories of both software and hardware, and we can help them navigate the software in the VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) we provide, but often I get questions from my learners about how to troubleshoot hardware problems too.

Does all this mean that we shouldn’t offer online learning to at-risk students?  No!  In fact I think it’s time we offer more online learning to these students whose lifestyles often suit the online learning world more than the face-to-face world.

Helping Your Reluctant eLearners Finish With Pride

Off to the BOLTT conference this week and this time I’m presenting for the first time to this audience. Maybe it’s because I’ve been teaching online now for 7 years or because I just had a fabulous experience researching online engagement last year, but regardless, I now have the confidence to talk about elearning for at-risk students.

During the presentation I’ll be harvesting the ideas of the participants in the room on Padlet, which I promise to share with you after the presentation is done on Friday.

Travel day Ashtead to Sheringham #England!

Ashtead to Waterloo to Stratford to Norwich.

First class home on the train! We’re Norfolk posh. via Facebook http://ift.tt/2toZVth

#England: Roof top dining by Norwich Cathedral

This was a fun place.  The service was….just ok but we enjoyed the ambience and the company!

#pb4t conference: Where Ontario Educators feel like rockstars

You know that feeling like….there are only a few more days left in my vacation and I’m not ready to go back to work?  Well after my incredible summer so far, I’ve been struggling to find the inspiration to start a new school year.  Have no fear!  I recently presented at the OTF #pb4t conference and I’m feeling invigorated!  Here’s my Storify with the links and highlights that you’ll want to steal for your own boost of energy.

https://storify.com/banana29/pb4t

#Iceland: Bubbling mud and blue lagoon north

At this point, we’ve seen glaciers, been white water rafting and whale watching, but looking back, I think our day, with Lake Myvatn and its geological wonders, was perhaps my favourite day.  Here’s a preview:

The Lake Myvatn area is simply not to be missed.  Just to remind you, Iceland is divided by two continental plates and this area is on the northeast section of this divide. There are active volcanoes across the divide of the island, but  Different tour guides quoted varying degrees on this point, but essentially Iceland is growing from the middle a few centimetres each year.  The geologic activity in the Lake Myvatn area seems to all stem from the volcano Krafla nearby.

iceland_rifts_2

From our base in Akureyri we simply took the ring road east again to get to the lake.  We took a couple of photos here at a lookout at the north end and the view took me back to a childhood memory of watching The Flinstones….volcanoes, lakes, and human activity happening all at once.

R0011222

The first point of interest we stopped at was Hverfjall, a cinder cone. Having no experience with no cinder cones before, we didn’t know what to expect, but we were hungry for knowledge.  There is one path allowed straight up the mound of ash to the top which I imagine prevents erosion of this geological monument.  It was fascinating to see the geometrical precision of the cone and its crater.  Plant life has begun to emerge and it is wild to see it struggle to survive.


Next we drove a further to Namaskard, an areaa where the power of the plate fissure is visible through steam that is pushing out of the earth causing bubbling mud and steam. It was absolutely fascinating.  I wish you had smell-o-vision because the gases were unbelievably stinky.  To feel this close to ‘the heartbeat of the earth’ simply took my breath away.


We next drove up to the area of Krafla, where the geothermal energy is being converted into power. There is a visitor centre here that I would take advantage of on a future visit but we didn’t get there this time. The kids were getting strung out and we needed to move along. Krafla itself is worth the drive, as it is beautiful caldera filled now with turquoise water.

We had a long swim at the northern version of Keflavik’s Blue Lagoon, here called the Myvatn Nature Baths.  A quick stop for some Rugbrauo (bread baked in a geysir), and we were on our way back to Akureyri via, another stunning waterfall, Godafoss.  The guidebooks warned us that the Myvatn area is swarming with midges.  We didn’t experience anything unbearable, although head nets were available everywhere until we got to Godafoss.  I just couldn’t handle it and escaped to the car.  Luckily Tim still got lots of pictures. Dinner and ice cream back in Akureyri completed the day and we fell into our beds. Simply put, our last day in northern Iceland, couldn’t be beat.

#Iceland: Humpbacks in Husavik

Our lovely full-service hotel, Hotel Kjarnalundur, just outside of Akureyri was a welcome sight after our rafting adventure, and it is here that we launched our next two days of fun in Iceland.  Our family room was big enough for all 6 of us, the breakfast buffet was plentiful, and we had a quiet night’s rest.

A quick drive to Husavik, and we were on our way to hopefully see whales in Skjalfandi Bay, the whale watching capital of Iceland. Our guide at North Sailing told us that we were just 40 miles from the Arctic Circle, and it felt momentous to realize how much work we had done to make it so far.  Aside from the hope of seeing the great whales up close, the scenery was outstanding.


We climbed once again into suits provided by the company that kept us warm, dry and had built-in flotation devices. I could live in one of those.

And we saw them! North Sailing exclusively offers a quiet tour which is much more unobtrusive than a zodiac, and our skilled captain was able to approach the whale area, and then to turn off the motor and drift into their zone. In our 3 hour trip, most of it crossing the bay and back again, we saw at least 3 humpbacks and a minke whale. We even came upon a humpback that was sleeping. When it realized a boat-load of people was staring down at him, it flipped its fluke and was gone.


People ask me, how do you manage to see whales each time you go whale watching? The answer is to do your research, follow migration routes….pay extra for a company that hires scientists and is top-rated in terms of its treatment of the sea life, and you will see them. I’ve never had an unsuccessful whale watching trip. If it’s important to you, then plan your entire trip around seeing these whales, like we did.

Husavik also offers a self-guided whale history museum that covers the industry of whaling and persuades the audience that eco-tourism is the new way to go.  After seeing the historical side and studying the great whale skeletons, we went for a dip ourselves at the Husavik Swimming pool.  It has a play pool, waterslide, a lengths pool, a cold tub, a hot tub and a massage tub.  Really really nice.  The kids were allowed to be rambunctious and they wore themselves out.  The nice woman at the ticket counter instructed us clearly on how to blend with the pre-bathing rituals necessary before entering.  We tried our best to dive like humpbacks with our spine up and then fluke, but it turns out this is really hard to do when your nose isn’t on top of your head.

 

#Iceland: Murder mysteries and rafting on a glacial river

Day 4 Iceland

The day began as the others, dreary drizzle, so waking up with jet lag again was just about right to go around to the front of our guesthouse and order some waffles.  They came covered in a local berry jam and whipped cream, and she had an espresso machine too.  The dining room was surrounded by local handicrafts which were also really cool to see as all the materials like wool, wood and antler are indigenous to the culture here.  So even if you don’t stay at the Guesthouse Langafit, stop by for the waffles!

Our ultimate destination today was Akureyri but we had a couple of stops along the  first.  Our next stop was the village of Blonduos which is known for its safe harbour for seabirds.  The local government has built a public blind for watching the birds in their nesting areas and it’s just such a good idea.  I wish Canada would do this.  I had marked here that the Hotel Blanda had a nice menu and it did.  I had something fishy, of course, but the kids were equally happy with their choices.  Nearby the hotel was a shop specializing in local artisans work and many of the things made by the shop owner, Etta. Although I would have happily brought the store with me, I purchased only a large button made of reindeer antler and a book.  It turns out that Blonduos is also famous for being central to the 1830 trial of local servant girl Agnes Magnusdottir, convicted, tried and executed for the murder of her master and his guest.    Etta showed me a map of each of the locations in this story and the book Burial Rites by Hannah Kent which tells Agnes’s side of the story and casts doubt on her guilt.  You had me at historical murder!

We surprised the kids by planning a family rafting trip with Viking Rafting just south of Varmahlio.  I can’t say enough about this company and the care they had for us to make this extraordinary experience happen.  I booked online through their website the gentler family trip for our nervous tweens and their aging parents (sorry Tim and Fiona, but it’s true.)  We had safety lessons, dry suits that were suited up for each of us and checked individually by the staff, and a comfortable ride to the river.

The best fact of the day was that the river spray we would drink was part of the glacier just 12 hours ago.  I have no idea if that is true, but the idea just enhanced the clean, fresh taste of the Iceland water even more.  At one point we were encouraged to cliff jump, another time to swim behind the boat and we all enjoyed a fresh hot chocolate made from the geothermally hot stream running next to our cold river. We loved the pace of our 90 minute trip, our guides Steve (from the U.S.) and Rajib (from Nepal), who were courteous and just the right combination of humour and kindness.

Being in the middle of nowhere, we pre-booked our Dinner of the Day with the Viking Rafting people and were served a healthy portion of meatballs, rice, sauce, and veg. I don’t know how to tell you this so I’ll just say it: the main meats of Iceland are based on what they can raise here: lamb and horse.  I’m sure there is a little of both in any minced meat that we had.  Still, the dinner was delicous and we were able to make the final leg of our day’s journey feeling warm again.

This video was shot by on the Go Pro by our friend Ethan.  I turned to our guide Rajib and asked “Can I trust you with our children?” He said, “Of course.”  So all the parents jumped in for swim in the cold glacier water.  Fantastic.

West to Snaefellsjokull #Iceland

First a word or two about renting a car in Iceland: Don’t use Flizzr (booked through WOW air).  Use Economy Rent a Car (I booked it through Expedia and it was effortless).  Take the insurance….dents on the car and broken windshields are the most likely isssues you’ll have.  Take the rest of the insurance….volcanic gravel is very sharp and there are barely any guardrails anywhere.  Now having said that, through my lens as a Canadian who grew up driving standard on a gravel road, the driving in Iceland was very easy.  When you go up a mountain and you get stuck behind a larger, slower vehicle, the slow person puts on their indicator to tell you when the road is clear ahead to pass.  Very civilized.  The gravel roads that are long and straight have a speed limit of 90 km.  We started back at Keflavik and effortlessly picked up our friends from the airport and got our new ride for the trip north: a Citroen Picasso wagon.  Super stylin’ and carries 6 passengers!  We had to add a top box to fit all of our belongings but the Economy staff took only 15 minutes to add it and we were on our way.

First order of the day was breakfast though, which at 11:30 am is hard to find.  Let’s face it, you just need to eat what you forage in Iceland, not what you desire.  I had marked Kaffi Duus at the Keflavik harbour as “a good place to eat” so we headed there.  There were options to order a buffet lunch or a la carte so we were all happy.  After lunch we wandered over to see a ship on display and as we did, a tourist ran past me saying “There it is!  What is it?”  My best guess, without a guide along, that it is a minke whale, grazing in Keflavik harbour.  If he hadn’t told me, I never would have seen it.  We learned later in the trip that the tell tale hovering of a flock of birds, often means that they are after the whale’s leftover krill that get pushed to the surface.

Sated for the moment, we headed out to the western peninsula about 2 hours away by car to the Snaefesllsjokull National Park. Every now and then we realize that there is a crucial sign missing. In general, what would improve the tourism greatly in Iceland is more signs. Things to mark where is the bus stop, what is the soup of the day, what time do the gates close, and in this case, what is this thing ahead, how do I get into it and how much does it cost? Nearing the intersection of a divorce with at least 2 u-turns and many arguments later, we all agreed that this apparent land bridge on the map was indeed a tunnel and we needed to go through it.  It’s called the Hvalfjordur Tunnel It’s almost 6 km long and goes under the fjord that separates Reykjavik from the Ring Road #1 which heads north here. It’s an amazing feat of engineering, and if you dig things like that, it’s not to be missed.  It costs 1000 Krona, by the way.  At the north side of the tunnel, you come to a lovely little town of Borgarnes, which happens to have a lovely little bakari kaffihus and is the site of one of the major scenes in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  We didn’t know that at the time, but it was really cool to see their devotion to the experience.

The scenery on this drive to the tip of the peninsula just gets better and better.  There are waterfalls everywhere, different types of igneous and metamorphic rock formations and gazillions of ridiculously fluffy sheep.  The sheep and Icelandic ponies (and in the cattle in the north and interior) all graze and wander at will.  In true ranching style, there are just road grates where the animals shouldn’t wander.  Once a year, the farmers get together and herd everything into sorting pens for the winter.  (All in all, after about 2500 km of driving in Iceland, I can count the number of unnerving incidents of roadside animal interaction on one hand. ~ ed.)  Every volcano leads to a lava field leads to some amazing coastal rock formations and Snaefellsjokull does not disappoint.

Here’s one of those places where a nice sign with a map would have been handy.  We made the decision to continue around the peninsula following the north side back to the Ring Road and north to our guesthouse in Laugarbakki.  The GPS kept wanting to send us back the way we came and we thought we knew better.  The roads became narrower, but not slower, and we ended up driving in and out of every darn fjord until the sun was near setting (= very very late).  There were no settlements with cute cafes, there were no grocery stores. But it was beautiful.   And long after everyone else in the car had dozed off, I saw a charcoal grey arctic fox.  No I don’t have a picture.  I was driving, silly. Here are a few more pics of our unexpected road trip adventure.

Lastly we checked into our Gueshouse Langafit and the 2 nice female owners took pity on us and let me buy groceries out of their fridge to feed the children: slices of processed cheese, a half loaf of bread, pop and strawberries from the greenhouse up the road.  I made cheese sandwiches  in the kitchenette and we were ready for our bath.  The community has a large hot tub fed by geothermal waters and it is just next door. It was just what we needed.  The rooms were pretty and clean, and when we woke in the morning, we ate waffles covered in jam and whipped cream.  She’s even got a gas pump and a car wash. Amazing hospitality.

Are we Icelandic teletubbies? #Iceland!

That’s Max looking like Kenny on the left and the rest of us are either Barbapapas or Teletubbies.  About to go whale watching in the Skjalfandi Bay at Husavik.

Ready to watch whales in Husavik #Iceland!

In Husavik whale watching with North Sailing.  Why am I the one who is the most covered and I still look cold?  Oh yeah!  Less than 80 km from the Arctic Circle.

#Iceland: Seljalandsfoss,Vik, and prawns

…and we slept for 14 hours our first night (but that’s jet lag).  As usually happens, my hours of pre-planning went awry but I convinced the fellas to push towards Vik, which I had heard was a geological phenomenon that can’t be missed.


On our way from Sacred Seed to Vik, I learned that red curtains on a gas station window do not indicate that a lady of the night is working inside, but instead that gas stations are made to feel cozy,and thankfully contain freshly baked goods and bottomless cups of coffee. Who knew?

Without my Google Map and wifi, I was feeling unsure about how to proceed but from a great distance we were able to suss out that there was a waterfall ahead and soon found Seljalandsfoss. It was big and it was powerful. On a beautiful 22 degree day in July we were able to wear shorts and t-shirts but these were not enough for the journey behind the falls for me. With the sudden shift to hurricane force winds, darkness, and a wet rocky ground, I retreated. The fellas went on without me and toured behind for all of 10 minutes. There were also souvenir shops and a stand with coffee and sandwiches, so we indulged. All in all, a must-see stop for an hour when in the south Iceland region.

Pushing onto Vik, the landscape once again took a dramatic turn. We swooped down into this seaside turn after climbing a large hill. The drives have been taking longer than we thought and we’re generally underestimating how long it will take to get anywhere. The speed limit is 90 on the big 2-lane highway that circles the whole island, but towns range from 40 – 70. There are only 300 000 people in the whole of Iceland so paving roads, building bridges across fjords and more than 2 lanes, are not a priority. Gas is about the same as in other parts of Europe…double the price of Canadian gas prices.
As soon as we could we got out of the car in Vik. The black sand, the colonies of a variety of sea birds, the majesty of the contrasting cliffs and ocean, I wept openly for a few moments not believing that I was actually here. I would have to say that Vik is my favourite place…out of the 2 days we’ve been travelling. It’s like seeing Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris for the first time. Seeing it with my family and hanging out doing what we do best, foraging for beach treasures, wallowing in the beauty and science of the flora and fauna, it was just awesome.

We stopped for something to eat at a restaurant near the beach called Halldorskaffi and they produced a pizza for the kid, a mozzarella salad for me and fish and chips too. It was all well-made and the staff were friendly too.

I am using this book a lot for prioritizing so much to see in our short time in Iceland, and in it, I found our next stop: Fjorubordid in Stokkseyri.  Have you ever been to one of those chain restaurants where the menu is so big with so many choices that you can hardly decide but everything is really average-tasting?  This was nothing like that.  Fjorubordid only does one thing a few ways: prawns.  They take online reservations so we drove straight from Vik to Stokkseyri to make our reservation at 6:30 pm.  We ordered the meal size magical prawn soup which came with limitless bread options and splurged on a glass of wine.  They even had a kids menu.  After a satisfying meal we raced back to Keflavik, near the airport and checked into our lovely triple room (that’s a queen and a single…so civilized and so perfect for us) at the Ace Guesthouse.  Our host was efficient and the rooms were well laid out and there was a kitchen with a fridge for drinks and tea and cookies.  He upgraded us to a room with a private WC but a shared shower.  We were very happy there.

Snaefellsjokull National Park #Iceland

That’s me in the bottom right of this photo trying desperately to show you the scale of this place.  Look left you’ll see vocanic coastlines and rock formations.  Look right and there’s a massive dormant volcano and glacier.  Look around and there are these beautiful moss-covered lava fields.  We didn’t give ourselves enough time to get here get out again and also visit the local towns….and we gave ourselves 9 hours.  No kidding.

Snæfellsjökull #Iceland!